DURING THE TEN YEARS’ REIGN OF KING GEORGE IV THE OLD PARTY groupings in politics were fast dissolving. For more than a century Whig and Tory on different contentious issues had faced and fought one another in the House of Commons. Whig also fought Whig. Modern scholars, delving deeply into family connections and commercial interests, have sought to show that there was no such thing as a two-party system in eighteenth-century Britain. If caution must be the hall-mark of history, all that may be said is that the men in power were vigorously opposed by the men who were out, while in between stood large numbers of neutral-minded gentlemen placidly prepared to support whichever group held office. It is not much of a conclusion to come to about a great age of Parliamentary debate. The ins and outs might as well have names, and why not employ the names of Whig and Tory which their supporters cast at one another? At any rate, in the 1820’s a Government of Tory complexion had been in power almost without interruption for thirty years.

This Government had successfully piloted the country through the longest and most dangerous war in which Britain had yet been engaged. It had also survived, though with tarnishing reputation, five years of peace-time unrest. But the Industrial Revolution posed a set of technical administrative problems which no aristocratic and agricultural party, Whig or Tory, was capable of handling. The nineteenth century called for a fresh interpretation of the duties of government. New principles and doctrines were arising which were to break up the old political parties and in the Victorian age reshape and recreate them. These developments took time, but already the party built up by the younger Pitt was feeling their stir and stress. Pitt had enlisted the growing mercantile and commercial interests of his day on the Tory side, and his policy of free trade and efficient administration had won over leaders of industry such as the fathers of Robert Peel and William Gladstone. But Pitt’s tradition had faded during the years of war. Faithful disciples among the younger men strove to carry on his ideas, but his successors in office lacked his prestige and broad vision. Without skilful management an alliance between the landed gentry and the new merchant class was bound to collapse. The growers of corn and the employers of industrial labour had little in common, and they began to quarrel while Pitt was still alive. Disruption was postponed to the days of Peel, but the conflict had been sharpening since the end of the war amid falling agricultural prices and weary bickering over the Corn Laws. Caroline’s divorce had discredited and weakened the Government. Parties were not yet expected to work out and lay before the country ambitious programmes of action. But even to its friends Lord Liverpool’s administration seemed to have no aim or purpose beyond preserving existing institutions.

The younger Tories, headed by George Canning and supported by William Huskisson, spokesman of the merchants, advocated a return to Pitt’s policy of free trade and intelligent commercial legislation. But even they were disunited. The issue of Catholic Emancipation was soon to confuse and split the Tory Party, and on this they were opposed by one of their own generation. Robert Peel during his six years in Ireland had successfully upheld the English ascendancy against heavy discontent and smouldering rebellion. He believed that “an honest despotic Government would be by far the fittest for Ireland.” By a mixture of coercion and adroit patronage he had imposed comparative quiet and orderliness. In the nature of things neither his methods nor their results endeared him to the Irish. He had come home convinced that Catholic Emancipation would imperil not only Protestantism in Ireland but the entire political system at Westminster. Long before the nineteenth century was over events proved him right. Meanwhile Peel became Canning’s rival for the future leadership of the Tories. Personalities added their complications. Canning had played a leading part in the conception and launching of the Peninsular War. His chief interest lay in foreign affairs. But this field seemed barred to him by his quarrel with Castlereagh. The older Members distrusted him. Brilliant, witty, effervescent, he had a gift for sarcasm which made him many enemies. A legend of unreliability grew up, his seniors thought him an intriguer, and when he resigned over the royal divorce in 1820 a Tory lord declared with relish, “Now we have got rid of those confounded men of genius.” In August 1822 Canning was offered the post of Governor-General of India. He reconciled himself to this honourable exile; his political life seemed at an end. But then Fate took a hand. As the ship came up the Thames to take him to the East, Castlereagh, his mind unhinged by overwork, cut his throat in the dressing-room of his home. Canning’s presence in the Government was now essential: he was appointed Foreign Secretary, and in this office he dominated English politics until his death five years later.

The Ministry was reconstructed to include Peel at the Home Office and Huskisson at the Board of Trade. The Government now had as many as three leading members in the Commons. In 1815 three-quarters of the Cabinet had been in the Lords. The following years saw a more enlightened period of Tory rule. Canning, Peel, and Huskisson pursued bold policies which in many respects were in advance of those propounded by the Whigs. The penal code was reformed by Peel, and the London police force is his creation. Huskisson overhauled the tariff system, and continued Pitt’s work in abolishing uneconomic taxes and revising the customs duties. Canning urged a scaling down of the duty on corn as the price rose at home. This was bound to bring conflict in the Tory ranks. He realised the distress and the political danger it would cause in the country, and declared on one occasion, “We are on the brink of a great struggle between property and population. . . . Such a struggle is only to be averted by the mildest and most liberal legislation.” This soothing task he set before himself, but it was Peel who had to face the crisis when it came.

Annual motions for a Bill of Catholic Emancipation were brought in, to the disquiet of the reactionary supporters of the Government. But on one issue Canning was firm. He was a stubborn defender of the existing franchise. He believed that by far-sighted commercial measures and a popular foreign policy the problems of Parliamentary Reform could be evaded. Length of years was not given him in which to perceive himself mistaken.


A crisis in Spain confronted Canning with his first task as Foreign Secretary. The popular elements which had led the struggle against Napoleon now revolted against the autocratic Bourbon Government, formed a revolutionary Junta, and proclaimed a constitution on the model of that set up in France in 1815. Canning had backed the Spanish national rising in 1808, and was naturally sympathetic, but Metternich and the Holy Alliance saw the revolt, which soon spread to the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, as a threat to the principle of monarchy and to the entire European system. A Congress at Verona in the autumn of 1822 discussed intervention in Spain on behalf of the Bourbons. Wellington had gone out as British representative with instructions from Castlereagh that Britain was to play no part in such a move. Canning vehemently agreed with this view and gave it wide publicity in England, and indeed the whole tradition of British foreign politics was against intervention in the domestic affairs of other states. But Austria and Russia were determined to act. An instrument lay ready to their hand. The ex-enemy, France, coveted respectability. Her restored Bourbon Government feared the revolutionaries and offered to send a military expedition to Spain to recover for King Ferdinand his absolutist powers. This was accepted at Verona. Canning would have nothing to do with it. There was great excitement in London. English volunteers went to Spain to serve in the defence forces of the Spanish “Liberals,” a name which entered English politics from this Spanish revolt, while “Conservative” came to us from France. But Canning was equally against official intervention on the side of “Spanish Liberalism,” and it was upon this that the Whigs attacked him. These heart-searchings in Britain made little difference to the outcome in Spain. The French expedition met with no serious resistance, and the Spanish Liberals retired to Cadiz and gave in.

A much larger issue now loomed beyond the European scene. Britain had little direct interest in the constitution of Spain, but for two centuries she had competed for the trade of Spain’s colonies in South America. Their liberties were important to her. During the wars with Napoleon these colonies had enjoyed the taste of autonomy. They had no relish, when the Bourbons were restored in Madrid, for the revival of royal Spanish rule. Up and down the whole length of the Andes campaigns were fought for South American liberation. By Canning’s time at the Foreign Office most of the republics that now figure on the map had come into separate if unstable existence. In the meanwhile British commerce with these regions had trebled in value since 1814. If France or the Holy Alliance intervened in the New World, if European troops were sent across the Atlantic to subdue the rebels, all this was lost, and much besides. These dangers gave Canning great anxiety. The business elements in England, whose support he was keen to command, were acutely sensitive to the peril. He acted with decision. He urged the United States to join Britain in opposing European interference in the countries across the Atlantic. While the Americans meditated on this proposal Canning also made an approach to the French. France had no desire to start an overseas quarrel with Britain. She disclaimed the use of force in South America and forswore colonial ambitions there. Thus was the Holy Alliance checked. As Canning later declared in a triumphant phrase, he had “called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old.”

The New World meanwhile had something of its own to say. The United States had no wish to see European quarrels transferred across the ocean. They had already recognised the independence of the principal Latin-American republics. They did not want aspiring princes of the royal houses of Europe to be ferried over and set up as monarchs on the democratic continent. Still less would they contemplate European reconquest and colonisation. Canning’s suggestion for a joint Anglo-American declaration began to grow attractive. Two honoured ex-Presidents, Jefferson and Madison, agreed with President Monroe that it would be a welcome and momentous step. They all had in mind Russian designs in the Pacific Ocean, as well as menaces from Europe; for the Russians occupied Alaska, and the territorial claims of the Czar stretched down the Western coast of America to California, where his agents were active. Monroe however had in John Qunicy Adams a Secretary of State who was cautious and stubborn by temperament and suspicious of Britain. Adams distrusted Canning, whom he earnestly thought to possess “a little too much wit for a Minister of State.” He believed that the United States should act on their own initiative. If at some future time Cuba, or even Canada, desired to enlist in the Great Republic, might not a joint statement with Britain about the inviolability of the continent prejudice such possibilities? It was wiser for America to keep her hands free. As Adams noted in his diary, “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war.” Hence there was propounded on December 2, 1823, in the President’s annual message to Congress a purely American doctrine, the Monroe Doctrine, which has often since been voiced in transatlantic affairs. “The American continents,” Monroe said, “by the free and independent condition they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any Europen Powers. . . . We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their [political] system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” These were resounding claims. Their acceptance by the rest of the world depended on the friendly vigilance of the “British man-of-war,” but this was a fact seldom openly acknowledged. For the best part of a century the Royal Navy remained the stoutest guarantee of freedom in the Americas. Thus shielded by the British bulwark, the American continent was able to work out its own unhindered destiny.

Monroe’s famous message conveyed a warning to Britain as well as to the authoritarian Powers. Canning understood the risks of competition and dispute with the United States upon the continent in which the Americans now claimed predominance. He was determined to avert all conflicts which might embarrass Britain and harm her own proper interests. There was no purpose however in arguing about dangers which still lay largely in the future. His private comment was short and to the point. “The avowed pretension of the United States,” he wrote, “to put themselves at the head of the confederacy of all the Americas and to sway that confederacy against Europe (Great Britain included) is not a pretension identified with our interests, or one that we can countenance or tolerate. It is, however, a pretension which there is no use in contesting in the abstract, but we must not say anything that seems to admit the principle.”

Soon afterwards Britain officially recognised the independence of the South American states. King George IV, who bore no love for republics, and many of Canning’s colleagues in the Government, had strenuously opposed this step. Even now the King refused to read the Royal Speech containing the announcement. It was read for him by a reluctant Lord Chancellor. So Canning’s view prevailed. His stroke over South America may probably be judged his greatest triumph in foreign policy. But this was not the only field in which decisive action was required of him.


During the worst years of the Napoleonic wars Britain’s greatest military effort had been launched in defence of Portugal. Now our oldest ally again called for assistance. Once more South America was involved. The Portuguese colony of Brazil had proclaimed its independence, and surprisingly accepted as its ruler a resident prince of the royal house. Canning recognised the new Empire of Brazil, and persuaded the Portuguese to do so. But affairs took a fresh turn. The King of Portugal died and his throne lay in dispute. His rightful heiress was the daughter of the Brazilian Emperor, eight years old, around whom the Liberal and constitutional forces rallied. But another claimant appeared in her absolutist uncle, who enjoyed the smiles of the Holy Alliance and the active support of Spain. It was, and always has been, British policy that Lisbon must not fall into the possession of unfriendly hands, and it now seemed that the whole of Portugal might succumb to authoritarian intervention. Under the terms of the ancient alliance British troops were dispatched to the Tagus in December 1826. Canning declared his views to the House of Commons. The movement of troops was not intended, he said, “to prescribe constitutions, but to defend and preserve the independence of an ally.” Our ambassador in Lisbon described the wild scenes when the ships of the Royal Navy were sighted in the Tagus. “No one is afraid to be a constitutionalist now. . . . England has spoken, and some of her troops have already arrived. The lion’s awakening [ce revéil du lion] has been majestic.” Nevertheless the Portuguese problem was only temporarily settled. It remained to perplex Canning’s successors in office for some years to come.

Another crisis had meanwhile erupted in the Eastern Mediterranean. After four centuries of subjection to the Turks the spirit of liberty was stirring among the Greeks. They broke into revolt, and in 1822 declared their independence. In England there was widespread enthusiasm for their cause. It appealed to the educated classes who had been brought up on the glories of Thermopylæ and Salamis. Enlightened circles in London were eager for intervention. Subscriptions were raised, and Byron and other British volunteers went to the aid of the Greeks. Before he met his death at Missolonghi Byron was deeply disillusioned. Not for the first or last time in the history of Greece a noble cause was nearly ruined by faction. But for the pressure of the Powers of Europe, the Greeks would have succumbed. With the aid of an army supplied by Mahomet Ali, the formidable Pasha of Egypt, the Sultan of Turkey was almost everywhere victorious. Unfortunately for the Greeks, the Powers were themselves divided. The Greek revolt had split the Holy Alliance, Austria and Russia taking opposite sides. Canning, like Castlereagh before him, was all for mediation. On the other hand, he feared that Russia would intervene, set up a client state in Greece, and exact her own price from the Turks. If Russia grew at Turkey’s expense British interests in the Middle East and in India would be put in jeopardy. Here lay the origins of the “Eastern Question,” as it was called, which increasingly preoccupied and baffled the Powers of Europe down to the First World War. After complicated negotiations Britain, France, and Russia agreed in 1827 on terms to be put to the Turks. British and French squadrons were sent to Greek waters to enforce them. This was the last achievement of Canning’s diplomacy. The next act in the Greek drama was played after his death.

Canning’s colleagues had become increasingly critical of the activities of their Foreign Secretary. Wellington was particularly disturbed by what he regarded as Canning’s headlong courses. The two wings of the administration were only held together by the conciliatory character of the Prime Minister, and in February 1827 Liverpool had a stroke. A major political crisis followed. Canning abroad and Huskisson at home had alienated the old Tories in the party. Who was now to lead the Government? The whole future of the Tories was at stake. Were they to go upon the road of Wellington or of Canning? The choice of Prime Minister still lay with the Crown, and Georve IV hesitated for a month before making his decision. The Whigs could offer no alternative administration. They were divided among themselves and without hope of gaining a majority from the existing electorate. So it had to be one or other of the Tory wings. Many members of Liverpool’s Cabinet, including Wellington and Eldon, declined to serve under Canning. On the other hand, Canning could command the support of a number of the leading Whigs. Should a Whig-Tory coalition be formed? That would break up the old party loyalties on which the Governments of the realm had for so long been based. Or should pure Tory rule be tried? That would be unpopular in the House of Commons and unacceptable to the country outside. Or could some neutral personage be found who might preside benignly and ineffectively over the factious scene? Exciting weeks and long conversations followed round the dinner-tables of Windsor Castle. It soon became plain that no Government could be constructed which did not include Canning and his friends, and that Canning would accept all or nothing. His final argument convinced the King. “Sire,” he said, “your father broke the domination of the Whigs. I hope your Majesty will not endure that of the Tories.” “No,” George IV replied, “I’ll be damned if I do.” In April 1827 Canning became Prime Minister, and for a brief hundred days held supreme political power.

Canning’s Ministry signalled the coming dissolution of the eighteenth-century political system. He held office by courtesy of a section of the Whigs. The only able Tory leader in the House of Commons whom he had lost was Robert Peel. Peel resigned partly for personal reasons and partly because he knew that Canning was in favour of Catholic Emancipation. But the Opposition Tories and the die-hard Whigs harassed the new Government. Had Canning been granted a longer spell of life the group he led might have founded a new political allegiance. But on August 8, after a short illness, Canning died. He was killed, like Castlereagh, by overwork.

Canning had played a decisive part in the shaping of the new century. In war and in peace he had proved himself a man of large views and active determination. His quick mind and hasty temper made him an uneasy party colleague. As his friend Sir Walter Scott said of him, he wanted prudence. Through Canning however the better side of the Pitt tradition was handed on to the future. In many ways he was in sympathy with the new movements stirring in English life. He was also in close touch with the Press and knew how to use publicity in the conduct of government. As with Chatham, his political power was largely based on public opinion and on a popular foreign policy. Belief in Catholic Emancipation marked him as more advanced in view than most of his Tory colleagues. His opposition to Parliamentary Reform was part of the curse which lay upon all English politicians who had had contact with the French Revolution. On this perhaps he might have changed his mind. At any rate, after his death his followers amid the ruins of the Tory Party were converted to the cause. Disraeli bore witness to this striking man. “I never saw Canning but once. I remember as if it were but yesterday the tumult of that ethereal brow. Still lingers in my ear the melody of that voice.”


Canning’s death at a critical moment at home and abroad dislocated the political scene. A makeshift administration composed of his followers, his Whig allies, and a group of Tories struggled ineptly with the situation. It leader was the lachrymose Lord Goderich, formerly Chancellor of the Exchequer. More than half the Tory Party, under Peel and Wellington, was in opposition. Quarrels among Whig and Tory members of the Government ruptured its unity. There had been a hitch in carrying out Canning’s policy of noninter vention in Greece—which did mean something, in spite of Talleyrand’s malicious definition, “un mot métaphysique et politique qui signifie à peu près la même chose qu’intervention.” Admiral Codrington, one of Nelson’s captains, who had fought at Trafalgar and was now in command of the Allied squadron in Greek waters, had on his own initiative destroyed the entire Turkish fleet in the Bay of Navarino. There was alarm in England in case the Russians should take undue advantage of this victory. The battle, which meant much to the Greeks, was disapprovingly described in the King’s Speech as an “untoward incident,” and the victor narrowly escaped court-martial. The Government, rent by Whig intrigues, abruptly disappeared. There was no question of a purely Whig Government. That party was weak and indifferently led. Wellington and Peel were instructed to form an administration. This they did. Wellington became Prime Minister, with Peel as Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons. The old Tories were to fight one more action. It was a stubborn rearguard.

The political views of the new Government were simple—defence of existing institutions, conviction that they alone stood between order and chaos, determination to retreat only if pressed by overwhelming forces. Peel was one of the ablest Ministers that Britain has seen. But his was an administrative mind. General ideas moved him only when they had seized the attention of the country and become inescapable political facts. The Government’s first retreat was the carrying of an Opposition measure repealing the Test and Corporation Acts which excluded the Nonconformists from office. After a long struggle they at last achieved political rights and equality. Not so the Catholics. Their emancipation was not merely a matter of principle, a step in the direction of complete religious equality, but it was also an Imperial concern. The greatest failure of British Government was in Ireland. Irish discontent had seriously weakened Britain’s strategic position during the Napoleonic wars. The social and political monopoly of a Protestant minority, which had oppressed Irish life since the days of Cromwell, would not be tolerated indefinitely. British Governments were perpetually threatened with revolution in Ireland. A main dividing line in politics after 1815 was upon this issue of Catholic Emancipation. It had sundered Canning and his followers, together with the Whigs, from Wellington and Peel. A decision had been postponed from year to year by “gentlemen’s agreements” among the English politicians. But the patience of the Irish was coming to its end. They were organising under Daniel O’Connell for vehement agitation against England. O’Connell was a landlord and a lawyer. He believed in what later came to be called Home Rule for Ireland under the British Crown. Though not himself a revolutionary, he was a powerful and excitable orator, and his speeches nourished thoughts of violence.

A minor political incident in England fired the train. The leader of the Canningites, William Huskisson, had been forced out of the Government along with his followers, and an Irish Protestant landowner, Vesey Fitzgerald, was promoted to one of the vacant Ministerial posts. Appointment to office in those days involved submitting to the electorate at a by-election, and so a poll was due in County Clare. O’Connell stood as candidate, backed by the whole force of his organisation, the Catholic Association. He was of course debarred by existing legislation from taking a seat in Parliament, but in spite of the efforts of the local Protestant gentry he was triumphantly elected. Here was a test case. If the English Government refused to enfranchise the Catholics there would be revolution in Ireland, and political disaster at home.

Peel, whose political career had been built up in Ireland, had long been the symbol of opposition to any concessions to the Catholics. It was upon that view that his political reputation was based. He was a Member for that most Anglican of constituencies, Oxford University. His attitude in the growing crisis was unavoidably delicate. Wellington’s position was happier. He was less committed and more able to take without qualm the line of expediency. The position in Ireland was simple. An independent association of the Irish people had sabotaged the official administration. The choice was either Catholic Emancipation or the systematic reconquest of Ireland. In August 1828 Wellington put the matter to the King. “The influence and powers of government in that country are no longer in the hands of the officers of the Government, but have been usurped by the demagogues of the Roman Catholic Association, who, acting through the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy, direct the country as they think proper. . . . We have a rebellion impending over us in Ireland, . . . and we in England a Parliament which we cannot dissolve, the majority of which is of opinion . . . that the remedy is to be found in Roman Catholic Emancipation, and they would unwillingly enter into the contest without making such an endeavour to pacify the country.”

The Protestants in Ireland were thoroughly alarmed. They had nothing to gain from an Irish revolt. Political equality for the Catholics was a bitter draught for them to swallow, but if emancipation was not conceded the whole land settlement would be in danger. Either the Catholics got the vote or the Protestants stood to lose their estates. In December the Chief Secretary for Ireland made the dangers clear to Peel. “I have little doubt that the peasantry of the South at present look forward to the period of O’Connell’s expulsion from the House of Commons as the time of rising. But any occurrence in the interval which might appear to be adverse to the Roman Catholic body might precipitate this result.” And one of the English Opposition in a letter described the view of the Irish Protestants: “I know from the most unquestionable authority that very many of the Orange Protestants in Ireland are now so entirely alarmed at their own position that they express in the most unqualified terms their earnest desire for any settlement of the question at issue on any terms.”

As a general Wellington knew the hopelessness of attempting to repress a national rising. He had seen civil war at close quarters in Spain. He himself came from an Irish family and was familiar with the turbulent island. He used plain language to the House of Lords. “I am one of those who have probably passed a longer period of my life engaged in war than most men, and principally in civil war; and I must say this, that if I could avoid by any sacrifice whatever even one month of civil war in the country to which I was attached I would sacrifice my life in order to do it.”

The only opponents of Emancipation were the English bishops, the old-fashioned Tories, and the King. The bishops and the Tories could be outvoted; but the King was a more serious obstacle. Wellington and Peel had had a most unsatisfactory interview with him at Windsor, and they had not yet consulted their Cabinet as a whole. Peel was growing more and more uncomfortable, but the attitude of the King would dictate his own. He felt justified in remaining in an administration which was about to introduce a measure he had opposed all his political life only if his presence were vital to its success. The fact that the Opposition could force Parliament to carry Catholic Emancipation did not weigh with him. They lacked the confidence of the Crown, and this was still indispensable. Wellington could not carry the measure without Peel, and the Whigs could not carry it without the King. This determined Peel. He resigned his High Tory seat at Oxford and bought himself in for Westbury. His offer to stand by Wellington finally persuaded George IV, who dreaded a Whig administration. Peel himself introduced the Bill for Catholic Emancipation into the House of Commons, and it was carried through Parliament in 1829 with comfortable majorities. Revolution in Ireland was averted. But the unity of the English Tories had received another blow. The “Old Guard,” still powerful under the unreformed franchise, never forgave Peel and Wellington for deserting the principle of the Anglican monopoly of power in Great Britain. Toryism meant many different and even conflicting things to its followers, but the supremacy of Protestantism had long been one of its binding political beliefs.

Wellington’s military view of politics had led him to overawe his critics by a characteristic challenge to a duel. Lord Winchilsea had overstepped the bounds of decorum in an attack upon the Prime Minister in the House of Lords, accusing Wellington of dishonesty. A full-dress challenge followed. The meeting took place in Battersea Park. The Field-Marshal, now aged sixty, was most nonchalant, slow and deliberate in his movements. This was much more his line than smoothing the susceptibilities of politicians, or, as he once put it in a moment of complaint, “assuaging what gentlemen call their feelings.” Turning to his second, who was also his Secretary at War, he said, “Now then, Hardinge, look sharp and step out the ground. I have no time to waste. Damn it! Don’t stick him up so near the ditch. If I hit him he’ll tumble in.” Neither party was wounded and Winchilsea signed a paper withdrawing his insinuations. Later in the day Wellington called upon the King. “I have another subject to mention to your Majesty, personal to myself. I have been fighting a duel this morning.” George graciously replied that he was glad of it; he had always been in favour of upholding the gentleman’s code of honour. Politics, alas, are not always so easily managed.

The Duke’s administration showed little sign of continuing its Liberal course. After the resignation of the Canningites two Cabinet posts had been given to ex-members of Wellington’s staff. This military and aide-de-campish Government was increasingly out of touch with political opinion, and the forces of Opposition were gathering. But upon the surface the atmosphere was calm. In June 1830 King George IV died, with a miniature of Mrs Fitzherbert round his neck. “The first gentleman of Europe” was not long mourned by his people. During his last illness his mistress, Lady Conyngham, was busy collecting her perquisites. This once handsome man had grown so gross and corpulent that he was ashamed to show himself in public. His extravagance had become a mania, and his natural abilities were clouded by years of self-indulgence. No tyrant by nature, he yet enjoyed fancying himself as an autocrat. But with thrones tottering on the Continent he realised that the less he said on this subject the better. His memory was bespattered by the Victorians. He was not in his conduct much worse or better than most contemporary men of fashion.


George IV was succeeded on the throne by his brother, the Duke of Clarence, the most eccentric and least obnoxious of the sons of George III. He had been brought up in the Navy, and had passed a life of total obscurity, except for a brief and ludicrous interval when Canning had made him Lord High Admiral in 1827. For many years he had lived with an actress at Bushey Park. But in the end he too had had to do his duty and marry a German princess, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. She proved to be a generous-hearted and acceptable Queen. Good-nature and simplicity of mind were William IV’s in equal measure. The gravest embarrassments he caused his Ministers sprang from his garrulity. It was difficult to restrain his tactlessness at public functions. At an official dinner given to Cabinet Ministers and foreign diplomats he rose, and, with nautical bluntness, proposed a coarse toast, adding, “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” to the embarrassment of the company. When he at last sat down one of the guests turned to the French Ambassador, Talleyrand, saying, “Eh bien, que pensez-vous de cela?” “C’est bien remarquable,” replied the Frenchman, not a muscle of his face moving.

But the royal pair were popular, although the diarist, Charles Greville, Clerk to the Privy Council and a close observer, was not certain if the kingly wits would last until the calling of Parliament. The Queen was not a beauty, but her quiet homeliness was a welcome change after the domestic life of George IV. The bluffness of the monarch was attractive to the lower orders, though once, when he spat out of the window of the State coach, a reproving voice from the crowd said, “George the Fourth would never have done that!” In any case, the life and manners of London society did not depend upon the example of the Court.

It had been expected that the new King might prefer a Whig administration. As Duke of Clarence he had been dismissed from the Admiralty by the Duke of Wellington. But on his accession William IV welcomed and retained the Duke. His reputation for fairness proved to be of political value. Wellington bore witness to it. “It is impossible for one man to have treated another man better or more kindly than the King did me from that day [his accession] to the day of his death. And yet it was also impossible for one man to have run another as hard as I did him as Lord High Admiral. But he showed no resentment of it.” “Sailor William” needed every ounce of fairness. There were heavy seas ahead. Revolution had again broken out in France, and the Bourbon monarchy was at an end. As the news swept across the Channel there were mutterings of a coming storm in England.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!